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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Category: Strategy (page 1 of 12)

Reflection on 5 Years of BRCK

It was 5 years ago that we created BRCK as a company, and I’ve had the great joy of being on a journey with some fantastic people, including the three here with me in this picture (Reg Orton, Emmanuel Kala, and Philip Walton).

We had an idea of what we were getting into back in October 2013, but none of us were sure where it would actually take us. All we knew then was that the barriers to creating hardware had dropped enough for us to get into it, that there was a problem in the internet connectivity space in Africa (and other frontier markets), and that we had the right mixture of skills, naiveté, and optimism to figure it out. Over the next 12 months we grew to a team of 10 that had this the desire to meet a big challenge and believed we could do hard things. As I write this, 8 of those 10 are still at BRCK.

In the intervening years we’ve built 3 full products and taken them to market (BRCK v1, Kio Kit, SupaBRCK), and a fourth (PicoBRCK) that is still in R&D. That alone is quite an accomplishment. I hadn’t known back in 2011 when the idea for creating a device was first hatched, just what the life cycle of building a hardware+software product would be. I do remember having a conversation with an old friend, Robert Fabricant, that I thought we should be done with the first one in about a year. He laughed and said it would be at least 2-3 years. He was mostly right.

The BRCK at a dry Victoria Falls

The BRCK at a dry Victoria Falls

I’ve since learned that it takes approximately 18 months for a product to go through the concept, design, testing, productization, and first samples stages. Then it typically takes us another 9 months for iterations and small fixes on hardware to happen, while that same time is spent concurrently hardening up the software side of things. For example, our most recent SupaBRCK took approximately almost two years from conception to product, and then another 6 months of continued fixes/changes to the low-level software and the hardware before it worked well consistently.

Asking the Right Question

You would often hear us saying, “Why do we use hardware designed for London or New York, when we live in Nairobi or New Delhi?” as a way to frame the problem we thought we were solving. It was only in late December 2014, after we had shipped the BRCK v1 to 50+ countries, that we realized we were only partially on the right track.

It turns out the problem isn’t in making the best hardware for connectivity in difficult environments. Sure, that’s part of the equation – making sure that you have the right tools for people to connect to the internet. But the bigger question involves people, who is connecting to the internet and who isn’t? If, after many years of building BRCK, we had built the best, most rugged and reliable solution for internet connectivity, that would be something we could pat each other on our backs for. However, if the problem instead was “How do we get the rest of Africa online?”, and we were able to solve that problem, then that was a legacy we’d be proud to tell our children about one day.

Sitting in our tiny office around Christmas 2014, we started thinking hard about this bigger issue and began doing deeper research into the problems of this loosely defined “connectivity” space. We started doing some user experience research, manon the street interviews, to figure out what the pain points were for people in Kenya.

Connectivity can generally be broken into two buckets:
First, accessibility – can I connect my device to a nearby signal?
Second, affordability – can I afford that connection?

The results were quite telling, it was definitely about affordability.

For everyone who’s not deep in African tech, let me lay out some interesting numbers for you. Accessibility in most of the emerging markets has been moving rapidly since the mid-2000s when we started to get the undersea cables coming into the continent. These cables then went inland and started a rapid increase in available internet connections and wholesale internet costs decreased rapidly. Since 2008 we’ve had more than one million kilometers of cable dug across the continent, and we have over 240,000 cell phone towers. Concurrently, the mobile device prices continued to drop globally, and by 2016 we started to have more smartphones imported into Africa than non-smartphones.

Reaching deeper into the market research, we started to study this affordability problem.

A4AI found that the average price of 1GB prepaid mobile broadband, when expressed as a % of average per capita Gross National Income (GNI), varied between 0.84% in North America and 17.49% in Africa.”

It turns out that in almost every country in Africa, there is a consistent ratio among all the smartphone owners in a country: 20% could afford to pay for the internet regularly, and an incredible 80% couldn’t.

Interestingly, when we looked at who else was working in this connectivity space, almost everyone was focused on accessibility, not affordability. Those that were focused on affordability thought that just making the price cheaper was enough. What we’ve seen is that if you just make “less expensive” subscription WiFi (as most do), then you’ll capture another 10% of the market. And while that can make a profitable enterprise, it still leaves 70% of the market unaddressed.

This last blue ocean of internet users in Africa, as well as Asia and Latin America, is still largely ignored. Those who do have the resources go to after it tend to try with iterative approaches in both business models around affordability, and only marginal creativeness in solving for technology accessibility.

Moja Means ONE

It’s taken us five years, going through multiple iterations of new tech, building new hardware, and creating new software stacks that go from the firmware up to the cloud. We’ve been mostly quiet for the past year as we put our heads down and tried to take a new platform to market. Where are we now?

“Moja” means “one” in Swahili, and it was the brand name that we chose to call the software platform that we would build on top of the BRCK hardware. While Moja means one, “pamoja” means “together” or “oneness”, and that was the root we were looking for. To us, Moja is the internet for everyone.

We started by trying to make it work on the BRCK v1, but that was a bit like trying to make a sedan do a job built for a lorry (truck) – it wasn’t powerful enough. The SupaBRCK was envisioned as the hardware we could leverage that would allow us to not just have enough of a powerful and enterprise-level router, but a tool that was actually a highly ruggedized micro-data center. With this, we could host content on each device, as well as get people connected to the internet. Another way to think about the accessibility side of what we do is that we have a new model for how a distributed CDN works on a nation-scale, moving away from the centralized model that the rest of the world uses. In environments like Kenya, we can’t continue to just copy and paste models from more developed infrastructure markets, we have to think of new ways to deal with how the undergirding system actually works and operates.

We give the internet away for free to consumers. How does that work if we all know that the internet isn’t free? After all, someone always pays.

The business model is an indirect one. We charge businesses for some form of digital engagement on our Moja platform (app downloads, surveys, or content caching), and the free internet to our consumers is a by-product of this b2b business model. Like everyone else, we thought we could do it with advertising at first. But we realized that our unique hardware capabilities allowed us some other options, since advertising is a poor option for all but a few of the biggest global tech platforms.

Today we’ve deployed 850 of the SupaBRCK’s running our Moja software into public transportation (buses and matatus) in Kenya and Rwanda. They’ve been quite successful with almost 1/4 million unique users monthly in just the first 3 months. We have both a tested and working technology platform, as well as product market fit. With unit economics that make sense, a growing user base, and a business model that works, we’re excited for the growth phase of the business. This next step means going nation-scale in each of these countries, and also determining our next market to enter.

It’s important that ordinary people across Africa and other frontier markets can stop thinking about the costs of the internet and don’t have to turn off their mobile internet on the smartphones that they already have in their pockets.

Once they know they can afford it, the way they used the internet changes dramatically. An Internet like this is feasible today, and it’s a cheaper, faster, more distributed and resilient one. It’s also being built from the ground up in Africa, where we’re close to both the technology and human problems, and have a better chance of building a the right thing.

Thoughts and Lessons Over 5 Years

First, make sure it’s a big enough problem.
If you’re going to spend 5+ years of your life on something, make sure it’s something that matters. At BRCK we are creating the onramp to the internet for anyone to connect to the internet, and a distribution platform for organizations trying to reach them. If we succeed we only succeed at scale, which by its nature means that we’ve done something big and that it has made a large impact on people.

Second, figure out what to focus on.
When you start out it’s difficult to determine product market fit. We started with a wide funnel of possibilities for our technology, industries that we could target and consumer plays. Over time, we were able to narrow down what could work, and what we could actually do, to the point where we focused on this big “connecting people” problem. We did detour into education with our Kio Kit, which we still think is one of the best (if not the best) holistic solutions for emerging market schools – after all, it’s in places across Africa, as well as the Pacific Islands and as far as Mexico. However, it proved to be too costly for our bottom line to hold inventory, sales cycles are too long, and it was largely a product sale. When we realized that, we started to focus most of our efforts on the bigger underlying issue across all of the markets, which was affordable connectivity and our Moja platform.

Third, persistence trumps skill.
building hardware is hard. It’s even harder doing it in Africa. The upside however is that you’re both closer to the problem, and that if you succeed in figuring it out, you have a good head start on everyone else. The process takes time, costs money, and there are people and organizations who don’t want you to succeed. It always takes longer than you want to get software working properly, or hardware built and reliable. We’ve often been faced by that same problem that plagues all venture backed companies in Africa, in that you have to do a lot of education to investors to even raise the capital, and then when you do you get charged a premium for perceived risk. Partner organizations take resources and time to work with, and they don’t always come through on their promises. All of these things (and more) mean that the best ideas don’t always win in the market, because it’s those that push the hardest and longest that win.

Fourth, it’s the people you do it with.
If you’re going to be on a journey that takes a great deal of time, with intense pressure, and where success is not guaranteed, then you had better do it with people that you can trust, who you can work with, and it helps if you like them too. Throughout my work career I’ve been more fortunate than most (whether at Ushahidi, iHub or BRCK), and this time is no exception. I get to work with a host of wonderful people; not just smart and talented, but also genuinely good human beings. It makes work a joyful challenge, not an exhausting chore.

So, to those back in the day who believed we could do this when it was just a sketch in my notebook, thank you Shuler, Kobia, Nat and Juliana (and the rest of the team at Ushahidi). To our investors who have joined us in this dream of connecting and doing hard things, you’ve continued to step up and that has made this possible. Thank you.

To Jeff, Janet, Birir, Kurt, Barre, and Oira, thank you for sticking it out for all these years and stepping up to more leadership challenges as we’ve evolved. To Philip, Reg, and Kala, I want to thank you for making the impossible happen, time and again, each for more than 5+ years.

The Rested, the Slow and the Robbed

TL;DR – We’re chilling by Victoria Falls today, a 5-hour drive took us 11-hours yesterday, and someone stole our med kit, a vest and 300m Nikon lens in Livingstone today.

Reg and Philip giving a BRCK demo at Bongohive

Reg and Philip giving a BRCK demo at Bongohive

Friday was amazing. We had gotten in the night before to Lusaka, and this meant we got to spend the whole day with the BongoHive team and the rest of the tech community here. They were some of the most hospitable people, and we gave demos/talks on the BRCK, as well as Mark giving a talk on User Experience (UX), which was one of the best talks I’ve heard in a long time. Later, I gave a talk on Savannah Fund and raising investment money for startups, and the whole evening was finished by Juliana and myself giving a joint keynote to get the local Startup Weekend going. Busy, and fun!

It’s interesting, with Lusaka being a smaller, though major African city, they have the ambitions of larger things. However, their issues become more challenging than people who live in some of the larger cities like Lagos, Cape Town or Nairobi, since there isn’t the critical mass of things like investors, customers or talent. It seems like the strategy to build a big company is that you have to move across borders and anchor off of a larger region more quickly.

A Day Off on the at Vic Falls

Today I’m sitting in a camp on the edge of a tributary to the Zambezi river, a couple kilometers from Victoria Falls. The rains have been late here, so everything is dry, including the falls themselves – they’re still epic, but not nearly the same as the real falls. We went out there this morning to get a few pictures, and were able to get the BRCK connected from “Danger Point”.

The BRCK Expedition at Victoria Falls

The BRCK Expedition at Victoria Falls

Mark Kamau of the iHub UX Lab at Victoria Falls, Danger Point

Mark Kamau of the iHub UX Lab at Victoria Falls, Danger Point

BRCK at Vic Falls

BRCK at Vic Falls

Today is mostly about rest. We’re doing a bit of testing, connecting the BRCK to the vehicle mounted Poynting antenna, and then amplifying that with a Wilson booster, which successfully turns a non-existent signal on a mobile phone into a 19 (with antenna) and then a 61 (with amp + antenna). It’s great to have a device like this where we can get such great connectivity wherever we go.

Mark has begun his lessons on how to ride a motorcycle today. He’s been busy putting around the campsite this afternoon with a big fat grin on his face. 🙂

Mark Kamau learns to ride a bike at Victoria Falls from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

The Road to Livingston

We had an interesting day yesterday, with a plan for a 5-6 hour ride from Lusaka to Livingstone. It turned into an 11-hour drive though, since the Land Rover had some issues with air in the fuel line. For a while, we could only go 20km at a time before it would stop and we’d have to bleed it. Luckily Philip really knows his way around a diesel engine, we worked through all the obvious issues and finally got it to go 100km before we had to bleed it again.

Fixing the Land Rover

Fixing the Land Rover

Trying to figure out the source of the air in the fuel

Trying to figure out the source of the air in the fuel

Last night Reg spent some time on it and though we think the fuel lift pump is the culprit (and weak), it’s working well enough to make the 500km run to Francistown, Botswana tomorrow.

Stinking Thieves

We thought Zambia was different. Mark accidentally left Juliana’s big Nikon camera at a restaurant in Lusaka. Mark wanted to go by and see if it was there, I was skeptical, it was lost forever. However, the next day our friend and TED Africa Fellow, Mulumba went by and they had found and kept it for us. Where were we? This doesn’t usually happen in a big African city…

Today, we had to run to pick up some food at the local Shoprite grocery store in Livingstone. We locked up the Land Rover and went in for 30 minutes or so. When we cam out we found everything sitting in the back seat was stolen, including a nice 300mm Nikon Lens, a riding vest, and most importantly of all, our amazing Med Kit. This med kit is put together by my wife, a nurse practitioner, and has some of the best expedition stuff you can find.

Oh, just found out that they got our Mozilla Firefox phone… this is a 3-SIM phone, and it’s what we used to top-up credit on SIM cards and figure things out along the way. What a shame.

We’re more than a bit pissed off about this, if I found the thieves there might be violence.

Pushing On and a Jua Kali hack

With the vehicle acting well all day today, the bikes tightened up and a chance to rest ourselves, we’re all set to hit the Botswana border in the morning and do a run down to Francistown. Reg had to head back to Kenya, so Mark will take over on the Land Rover, though we will miss having an engineer with us.

With Joel’s riding vest gone, we had no water for him. Fortunately, I carried an extra bladder. We put together a jua kali water pack for him using this, along with one of those small Alite chair bags, and a couple Rok straps (see below).

A 2 liter water pouch, a small chair bag, and two Rok straps make a new backpack for water.

A 2 liter water pouch, a small chair bag, and two Rok straps make a new backpack for water.

Builders and Talkers: The Fallacy of the Grant vs Investment Debate

A bunch of people are talking about where the money comes from that funds the tech startups and/or the ecosystem in East Africa’s tech community:

Most of the people talking haven’t actually built anything – they’re media, analysts, investors or grant-giving organizations.

A few are entrepreneurs – and I’m not talking about the type that thinks that is a sexy title and who wave around a CEO business card – I’m talking about the real entrepreneurs, the ones who are in the trenches, finding the right talent, securing funding, battling it out for clients, and shipping solid product. Too few of the voices we hear are of this type.

The debate is skewed. You’re told that money is evil if it is free (grants), that it’s only pure if it comes from an investor (angel, seed, VC). That if you get grant money that it will take you off focus and derail your business. Sure, this is a danger. It’s also a danger that you get a VC who gives you money, and who doesn’t understand the market, our region, or something else about your business and forces you to go off focus and derails your business as well.

The truth is, that as a leader of a company, your job is to decide what is the “good” money and “bad” money. This isn’t some academic or theoretical issue, it’s real life or death decisions that you stake your company on. When you can’t pay payroll and have to take a loan from the bank at 24%, you’ll take it to keep the business alive. When you’re starting up you might go for those piddly $15-25k grants that everyone seems to think grow on trees (but don’t). When you’re at that stage where you have real success, but now you need to expand much further, you’ll deal with the slick-talking VCs in order to work out the best deal for your future. It’s just how it works.

This argument of grant vs investment money is a false dichotomy – neither is pure. As a leader of my own business, if someone offers me free grant money that I believe is in our best interest, I will take it every day of the week. I measure it in the same way that I would if a VC wants to give me a dodgy deal – I refuse it.

If it was easy, everyone would do it

As a tech entrepreneur in our region, be objective and pragmatic. Be wary of pundits, analysts, investors, NGOs and anyone who hasn’t built something of their own. The entrepreneur life you’re signing up for means you’ll work harder, sweat more, stress more and feel both great euphoria and defeat. It’s hard, grinding work, and those who push hardest, longest and the most creatively win. And if you win, the prize is big, so it is worth trying for.

Everyone has an opinion, but few have tried, and fewer have built something that succeeds. Your job is to think bigger, and more creatively, and to boldly aim for success. Few have the courage it takes to go this route, so remember that and make sure the person you’re talking to actually has the qualifications worth your time to listen to.

However, do listen to those who have been there, they are the rare ones who have made it through the battle lines and won, seek them out. The best mentors are rarely found in the institutions that have the money. A few investors have been there and have the experience, not many. Even fewer on the NGO and foundation side.

Here’s a better idea. If you can build your company without taking investment money, do it. There’s a fallacy in thinking that you need investment or grant money at all. Instead, try to do as much as you can, get as many clients as possible, grow fast, build a great product, and then only when you actually HAVE to have it, should you go for any other outside money.

5 Good Recent Reports on African Tech – 2014

I keep meaning to write blog posts on each of these reports on tech, most of them on Africa, but can’t seem to get it done. Instead, I’ll just post a link to each, a visual, and why I think it’s worth reading.

1. The Akamai “State of the Internet” Q3 2013 report

[Akamai Report – PDF Download]

Has good information on overall usage globally, and trends. In Africa, even though they have a node in Kenya, all we’re seeing is stats on South Africa, Egypt and Morocco. However, there is a really fascinating chart by Ericsson in it on wireless usage.

Mobile data vs voice growth globally - 2013

Mobile data vs voice growth globally – 2013

2. GSMA’s “Digital Entrepreneurship in Kenya” report 2014

[GSMA – Entrepreneurship in Kenya report 2014 – PDF Download]

The GSMA puts together some fantastic reports, due to the amount of data at their fingertips due to their association’s membership. Alongside the iHub Research team, they’ve done a deep dive into the tech entrepreneurship side of Kenya, and you can see the results here.

tech-in-kenya-stats-2013

3. Deloitte’s “Value of connectivity” report 2014

[Deloitte’s – Extending Internet Connectivity report 2014 – PDF Download]

The Deloitte folks do a study and argue that an increase in internet penetration could have a large impact on an emerging market country’s GDP.

“Deloitte estimates that the resulting economic activity could generate $2.2 trillion in additional GDP, a 72% increase in the GDP growth rate, and more than 140 million new jobs.”

Internet penetration worldwide - Deloitte Report 2013

4. infoDev’s “The Business Models of mLabs and mHubs” report 2014

[The Business Models of mLabs and mHubs 2014 – PDF Download]

I’ve had a front-row seat to infoDev’s work starting and supporting places like the m:lab in East Africa. After doing it for 3 years, here’s their indepth report on what’s working, not working, how much money has been spent and what the future might look like.

Comparison of Key Results across mLabs - 2014

5. McKinsey’s “The Internet’s transformative potential in Africa” report 2013

[MGI Lions go digital_Full report_Nov 2013 – PDF Download]

Mostly useful due to the interest large corporates and banks put in McKinsey, this report makes that the greatest impact of the internet in Africa is likely to be concentrated in six sectors: financial services, education, health, retail, agriculture, and government. What they’ve done particularly well is gather a large range of numbers from diverse and various sources to make better sense of what’s going on.

Penetration and usage vary widely across the continent

Managing with Trust and Expectation

For the past 6 years I’ve been part of a rather unique organization in Ushahidi, where we decided early on that how we’d run the organization was that we would trust each other and expect that everyone would act like responsible adults. It’s worked brilliantly, even as we’ve grown and spun up new enterprises and organizations such as iHub and BRCK.

Yesterday I read about the Berkshire Hathaway “strategy of trust”:

Mr. Munger, 90, was ruminating on the state of corporate governance, offering a counternarrative to the distrustful culture of most businesses: Instead of filling your ranks with lawyers and compliance people, he argued, hire people that you actually trust and let them do their job.

It’s well worth a read, and I didn’t expect to find parity in leadership philosophy between us and a 300,000-person family of organizations.

How do we do it?

There are probably other organizations like ours, ones who have decided to trust their team and assume that people make good decisions based out of the best intentions of the organization and their colleagues, over themselves. We didn’t set out with a great body of knowledge on how to do this, but instead with some theories that we’ve refined over time. Here are the most important ones:

Find the Right People
David, Juliana and I particularly don’t like to micromanage. We’ll work with you to define the goal, but if you expect someone to tell you how to get there, you won’t fit. We don’t check up on you all the time, you tell us when there’s a snag. You need to work autonomously. We’ll help, and are always there for a conversation, but your job is to get from point A to point B.

It’s always better to find people who are smart and get things done, who can work autonomously and tend to not put themselves first. Big egos don’t go well with this kind of team, so we look for humility when interviewing.

I remember making a mistake back in 2009, hiring someone off of reputation and resume, without really digging into their portfolio or doing multiple interviews. Ever since then I’ve refused to look at CVs or resumes and each new person goes through about 4-5 other people on the team before we make the final decision. Those other people on the team catch things I wouldn’t, some about skill, but most about ethos and personality.

Knowing the Ethos
If an emergency happens where you are, can you make a decision and run with it, without having to ask permission? You should be able to. This is especially important in an organization with a globally distributed team that deals with crisis and disaster. We decided that everyone should be able to make critical decisions about deployments of the software, partnerships and strategic steps on their own. Just fill everyone else in on it as it comes up and if adjustments need to be made, then we do it together.

To make this work, we had to ensure that everyone on the team, from junior engineers to new QA staff actually understood the foundational elements of the organization. Not just what we built, but why we built it, how it all started and where we were going in the future. While there’s no “intro to X” classes, we do throw you in the deep end early on. It started with our first hire, Henry Addo from Ghana, who found himself speaking in the French Senate in Paris in his first month on the job. That made us realize that public speaking forces you to learn a lot more about the organization that you’re in, quickly.

Our goal is that a camera and mic can be put in front of any team member and they can answer any question on the organization. The way they answer it might be different than me due to speaking styles, but because they understand the ethos of the organizations, it is still correct.

Per Diems
We don’t do per diems. You’re traveling for the organization, spend what you need on food, lodging and transport. Be responsible about it, since this is money needed for the organization to grow. If you’re in NYC, we know things are more expensive, if you’re in Omaha we know they’re not. The “Agency Effect” (or Principal Agent Problem) comes into play here as the incentives are wrong between a team member and the organization if they get an allowance for travel.

Final Thoughts

I suppose what I’m saying is that if you truly trust people to act like the adults they are and to do the right thing, they generally do. All the corporate oversight you can apply won’t stop an Enron from happening, so something else has to work. It has to be something that’s real though, people can sniff out very quickly if it’s a manufactured, or fake, trust. This means as much of the onus lies on the leaders to “let go” as it does for the team members to shoulder and own the expectations that come with their role.

My greatest takeaway from the Mr. Munger and Mr. Buffett was found in the last paragraph:

Mr. Munger, in a previous annual meeting, contended that the best way to hold managers accountable is to make them eat their own cooking. Mr. Munger pointed to the late Columbia University philosophy professor, Charles Frankel, who believed “that systems are responsible in proportion to the degree in which the people making the decisions are living with the results of those decisions.” Mr. Munger cited the Romans, “where, if you build a bridge, you stood under the arch when the scaffolding was removed.

We all need to stand under our own bridges more often, and I’m going to figure out how to make that happen in my organizations.

Unequal Distribution and Perception of Emerging Markets

35 percent of the world is onlineThere’s quite a good read up on the Tech Coctail site titled, “What (US) VC’s Are Missing in a Rising World of Smartphones“. It’s a little about smartphones, though the underlying discussion points are really about how blind the investors in the West are to the Middle East, Africa, and Asia due to their preconditioning on Silicon Valley being the only place that big tech things happen. Meanwhile, massive deals are ongoing in the Middle East and Asia that are under the radar.

But Western VC’s are slow, and US VCs in particular are slow to catch on to this trend. In part, this is because US investors are accustomed to seeing the best US deals, and they are used to dealing with our ecosystem, our rule of law, the network effect of talent that is Silicon Valley, and other places here that are attracting dollars accordingly.

After spending 3 months raising investment for the BRCK company in the US, EU and Africa I can confirm that there is a great deal of investor unease in putting money into something in Africa from the US. Silicon Valley types tend to pay lip service to this idea, but don’t actually invest their money that easily.

I just wrote a post on the BRCK blog about what Juliana brought up at TED last year about “unequal distribution”, this time shown on a world map of the internet of things. This idea of unequal distribution of information and how it played into the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution and now the digital revolution that we’re sitting in today.

Thingful.net - mapping the internet of things

Thingful.net – mapping the internet of things

Unequal distribution is not static, it’s a constant dynamic where no one region of the world will lead indefinitely. ITU stats already point out that 65% of the people who get onto the internet today come from emerging markets. Meanwhile, only 24% of the people in emerging markets are online. That means that whether the West realizes it or not, the internet focus has already shifted, the ripples of this are only now being felt.

If you think that Google’s, Yahoo’s, Cisco’s, Intel’s (and many other’s) partnership in the Alliance for Affordable Internet and Facebook’s Internet.org strategies around global internet connectivity are just CSR activities, then you’re sorely mistaken. These companies (literally) see the numbers and the know that they need to stake a claim in the regions where the future of the internet already are.

Where Facebook's users are coming from 2012 vs 2014

Where Facebook’s users are coming from 2012 vs 2014

One in Three

One in three people around the world are connected to the internet. This is not enough.

In a world of 7 billion people, 4.2 billion still can’t access the internet. 3.8 billion of whom live in emerging markets, specifically Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Market research in this space is fascinating, because as we look at penetration rates we see that even though the lion’s share of internet is being driven by the developed world, that that in fact only one in three internet users comes from those countries. 65% of internet users are from the developing world today, 35% from the developed.

Individuals using the Internet, by level of development - 2013

Individuals using the Internet, by level of development – 2013

The takeaway here is that most everyone’s assumptions about the internet are wrong. The fastest growth is already in the emerging markets, and that growth is only accelerating. If you’re going to pick a place to put your money, it’s not in the US or Europe, it’s in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

My new job is to truly understand these numbers. As I talk to investors about investing in BRCK, our new router/modem/smart battery device made for this part of the world, I’m expected to know about the market. So I know things like this: if only 24% in the developing world are connected to the internet, then BRCK targeting 1% of these 3.8 billion unconnected people means a potential market size of $7.7 billion.

Only 24% in the developing world are connected to the internet.  BRCK targeting 1% of the 3.8 billion unconnected means a market size of $7.7B

Only 24% in the developing world are connected to the internet. BRCK targeting 1% of the 3.8 billion unconnected means a market size of $7.7B

Of the 1.8 billion people connected to the internet in the developing world, An astounding 65% of them use Wireless Data.

Of the 1.8 billion people connected to the internet in the developing world, An astounding 65% of them use Wireless Data.

That’s a big number, and it’s why I’m so excited about the future.

[Stats source: ITU]

Infrastructure plays

In an earlier blog post I talked about the “rail lines of connectivity“, talking about the pioneering engineers of yesteryear who built the railroads, and who’s rails we still ride on for communication today. Where Physically connecting people and things was the great challenge of their time, digitally connecting people and information is the great challenge of ours.

There are other big infrastructure plays right now, specifically in communications, and heavily internet-focused. If the 90’s and 2000’s were characterized by the rise of mobile infrastructure, the 2010’s are equally characterized by the internet.

It started with the undersea cables in the late 2000’s, and is now about terrestrial cable and growth in technologies that cost less but spread over greater regions. The race is on to connect the world – at least to build the road and rails for the internet, if not the driveways into people’s homes and offices.

For the former, Google’s just-launched “Project Link” in Uganda underscores an intent to increase speeds and decrease costs by providing Google fiber on the continent. There’s also no lack of investment available for companies digging trenches for terrestrial cable across the African continent, this is private equity fund territory, and it’s booming.

Intra-Africa Internet cable map - Donna Namujju & Steve Song

Intra-Africa Internet cable map – Donna Namujju & Steve Song

Both Google and Microsoft are experimenting with the widely available TV White Spaces spectrum, which can spread wider and costs less other solutions over broad areas of dispersed populations. Then there is Project Loon, a true moonshot idea by Google to cover wide areas of the developing world with internet balloons floating at 20km.

I’m often asked why the BRCK is so important for internet growth in Africa and other parts of the world with poor infrastructure. This is why: so many focus on building the backbone, and so few focus on the last-mile, the end user.

The large international tech companies are putting a lot of effort into cracking open the developing world market as it’s where the growth for the next ten years comes from. We all need this, and I’m a big fan of what both Google and Microsoft (as well as the private equity investors) are doing.

We also need tools that work here, devices that are created to work in areas where there might be connectivity, but no power. Where the roads are still dirt and dust and rain affect all of you your electronics. The BRCK was designed for this world, it’s designed in Kenya (where we live) and it’s this last-mile problem that we are committed to solving.

We’re taking investment right now, closing a convertible debt round in mid-December. If you want to take part of this seismic shift in the internet, you can join us at https://angel.co/brck.

BRCK - final mile connectivity for the rest of the world

BRCK – final mile connectivity for the rest of the world

Thinking about Blogging at WordCamp Kenya 2013

WordCamp Kenya 2013, Nanyuki

WordCamp Kenya 2013, Nanyuki

Today finds me in Nanyuki, Kenya at WordCamp Kenya 2013. The past couple years, I’ve been traveling during the event, but this year I get to come hang out with my blogging brothers and sisters.

As I was thinking about what to talk about, I thought I’d cover four areas:

  1. Why we blog
  2. My rules for blogging
  3. 3 things that are bothering me in the Kenyan blogosphere
  4. Using blogging as a tool

Why We Blog

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”
– Lewis Carroll

The best bloggers are storytellers, they take you on a journey. They tell you why you should care about things, they’re opinionated and informative, and they understand what makes things interesting to their readers.

My rules for blogging

My rules for blogging

Commitment: to be a really good blogger, you have to commit to it for a long time. Success doesn’t happen over night, and if you take it seriously and really put your mind to it, you can leverage that for much greater things in the years ahead.

Quality: take the time to write well. Sometimes I’ll write a 4 paragraph blog post and it’ll take me more than 2 hours. That sounds ludicrous, but it’s because I’m trying to find the right phrase, link to the right places and put the right images in that make this worth someone’s time to read.

Consistency: this is where I’ve been falling down over the last year or so. If you consistently publish quality blog posts, you’ll gather a following and generate a community around what you do. I blogged consistently, 3-4 times per week for two years before I really got noticed. It’s important to remember that blogging is a long-game, and that if you stick with it, it will pay off.

3 things that are bothering me in the Kenyan blogosphere

1. The Kenyan elections
Back in March of this year we had the prolonged (5-day) Kenyan elections, where there was a lot of tension. Where I believe we traded “peace” for truth. I wasn’t surprised that the media didn’t do their job. I was surprised that there were so few bloggers who did theirs. I took a lot of heat for creating the IEBC Tech Kenya blog on Tumblr to track the facts around the IEBC technology failures, but I kept wondering where the other bloggers were.

Quote by @Gathara

One person who did blog was @Gathara, and boy did he blog well!

Our job as bloggers is to be independent voices, and we’re most powerful when mainstream media isn’t doing their job. When we do this blogging in a timely manner and get that information out there quickly and in a well-researched and circumspect way. We need to get back to our Kenyan blogging roots, which were just like this back 4-7 years ago.

2. Corporate sponsored bloggers
Making money off of blogging is fine, nothing wrong with that. I’m tired of cut and paste blogging though, where people take press releases from a corporate and get paid to just paste it with no changes. I want to know why what that company is doing is interesting, why I should care. I want to know what your opinion is.

Don’t sell out and lose your identity.

3. Kenya’s new media laws

Kenyan MPs have approved a contentious media bill that journalists say amounts to government censorship

I see articles on the East African, the Telegraph, the Nation, but only a couple blogs show up in Google search results.

Why? Already we have loose set of laws around media and information, it’s a slippery censorship slope that hurts all but the powerful in Kenya. This new law makes it even worse, it smacks of Moi-era censorship.

Where are the bloggers using this opportunity to push back? Don’t we realize that this law applies to us too?

Blogging as a tool

My final discussion points were about how even if you have very little, you can still use WordPress, Twitter and Instagram to build a brand. I talked briefly about where we’d come from with Ushahidi and the iHub, just using blogging and social media to get on the map. Now, we’re doing the same thing for BRCK.

The BRCK Eclipse Expedition

The BRCK Eclipse Expedition

I used the example and ran through the story of the BRCK expedition to Lake Turkana to catch the Solar Eclipse. I used my blog, as well as the BRCK blog to create the narrative, amplified by Instagram, Twitter and Vimeo.

Tools used to blog the BRCK Eclipse expedition

Tools used to blog the BRCK Eclipse expedition

When you’re building a new brand, what you write and the images you use, help people understand what the narrative and brand is about. For us, it was important to put a stake in the sand (literally too, I guess), about the BRCK being a rugged connectivity device. Nothing said that quite like the team behind it out and thrashing it themselves (and also thrashing themselves…).

The results of this were that by the time we got back a week later, there were many more people interested in buying a BRCK themselves, but also people who now wanted to partner with us and even invest.

Telling the story, creating the brand narrative

Telling the story, creating the brand narrative

Blogging is a long-term strategy. The Ushahidi blog has been a big part of our identity for almost 6 years. The team who built Ushahidi were all bloggers, so it makes sense that it’s part of our DNA. For the iHub the same. For BRCK the same. I don’t believe in press releases, I believe in blogging the story and if you’re doing interesting things and telling the story about them well, then the right parties will find you.

3.5 years later, what has the iHub done?

Becky Wanjiku sits on the iHub Advisory Board with me, and started a discussion on the iHub, asking “What has the iHub Achieved?“. Her main takeaway point being that the iHub is a platform, and it’s what YOU do with it that is important. T

he iHub started in March 2010, so it’s been about 3.5 years and a lot has happened here in the intervening years. Many people ask me, “so, what has the iHub done?” The best way I could think of to answer that is to just list as much as I could think of, so here’s a rather exhaustive list, though I’m sure that I’m missing some things.

Why Tech Hubs in Africa Exist

Nairobi tech community working at the iHub, circa 2011

Nairobi tech community working at the iHub, circa 2011


Before I get into that though, maybe a framing on why tech hubs exist is important. They’re not just there for startups, in fact our thoughts on incubation and products going back to 2010 was just pre-incubation and connecting to other businesses and investors. Places like the iHub exist to connect this community together, while we get involved in other gaps that exist in the market (UX, incubation, research, etc), these are just part of providing a place where serendipity happens for those who are involved across the network.

These spaces are more than just nurturing talented entrepreneurs, and to not see that means you’re missing the bigger picture on why they exist. They’re not only about entrepreneurs, though we have seen some of them grow from nothing to 40-person orgs that run across multiple countries.

The tech hubs in Africa are more than just places focused on products, much of what goes on is about connecting the people within the tech community in that area to each other and to the greater global industry. For instance, we started Pivot in East Africa, an annual event that does two things: First, it created a culture where the entrepreneurs learned how to pitch their products. Second, it gave a reason for local and global investors and media to come and see what’s going on. Both funding and media coverage have resulted.

Another example is the connecting of global tech companies to local developers, the training that comes out of it for everyone from network operators to Android devs. Google, Samsung and Intel all play strongly in that space.

Some work at increasing the viability and skillsets of freelancers. Whether they’re web designers or PHP software engineers increasing their understanding of how to setup a company, know what IP law is about, take training on project management or quality assurance testing – these all add up to a community that is evolving and becoming more professional.

Those are just a few of the things that tech hubs do across Africa. I can speak for the iHub in Kenya, but know that there are others such as ccHub in Nigeria, Banta Labs in Senegal, ActivSpaces in Cameroon and the other 19 tech hubs in the Afrilabs network are all doing amazing things that create a base for new innovative products, services and models to grow out of. There are new models for ecosystem development around tech in Africa revolving around these technology hubs that are, and will breed, more innovation over time.

New initiatives and organizations from the iHub:

m:lab – first tech incubator in Kenya (2011)
Mobile testing room – all the tablets and phones from the manufacturers (2011)
iHub Research – tech focused research arm (2011)
UX Lab – first user experience lab in East Africa (2012)
iHub Consulting – an effort to connect freelancers to training and businesses (2012)
Savannah Fund – a funding and accelerator program (2012)
Cluster – first open supercomputer cluster in East Africa (2013)
Gearbox – an open makerspace for rapid prototyping (2013)
Code FC – iHub Football Club
Volunteer Network team – the iHub internet network was setup, and is run by, volunteers

Startups who met, work, or started in the iHub:

BitYarn
NikoHapa
KopoKopo
M-Farm
BRCK
Eneza Education
Ma3Route
Uhasibu
Fomobi
Whive
Zege Technologies
Afroes Games
iDaktari
MedAfrica
SleepOut
M-shop
Angani.co
Wezatele
AkiraChix
Upstart Africa
Juakali
CrowdPesa
Elimu
iCow
Sprint Interactive
Lipisha
6 Degrees / The Phone book
Pesatalk
Skoobox
Waabeh
MamaTele
RevWebolution
Smart Blackboard – Mukeli Mobile

Not all groups start their company at the iHub, but they do meet their future business partners there. The Rupu founders met at an iHub event, and subsequently went on to grow their business, the same is true of companies like Skyline Design, and probably many others who we don’t even know about.

It turns out that serendipity is intrinsically hard to measure.

Larger events, groups and meetings:

One of the 120+ events that takes place at the iHub each year.

One of the 120+ events that takes place at the iHub each year.

  • Pivot East – annual pitching competition for East Africa’s mobile startups
  • iHub Robotics (now Gearbox community) meet-ups and build nights
  • EANOG – East Africa Network Operators Group
  • Kids Hacker Camp – 40 kids hack on Arduino, learn about robotics and sensors in a week long full-day hackathon, in partnership with IBM
  • NRBuzz – A monthly event on sharing research on new technologies and communication
  • Summer Data Jam – an annual 6-weeks training on Research and Data
  • Tajriba – month-long user experience event
  • m:lab mobile training – 22 students, 4 months, business and mobile programming (2 years to date)
  • Legal month – annual event with visiting legal professionals leading workshops
  • Barcamp Nairobi (2010, 2011, 2013)
  • Waza Experience – volunteer outreach initiative to expose Kenyan youth to technology and spur creative thinking, problem solving, and better communication skills
  • Fireside Chats – A session for VIP and seasoned speakers
  • Mobile Monday
  • Wireless Wednesday
  • JumpStart Series
  • Pitch Night
  • iHub Livewire – music concert by the iHub community
  • iHub Research Coffee Hour
  • We have a Policy Formulation Team which consists of Jessica Musila, Martin Obuya Paul Muchene, and Jimmy Gitonga. Each one of us sits or has sat through a policy formulation process, such as the AU CyberSecurity (Martin and Paul) and MySociety, Mzalendo (Jessica Musila) and National Broadband Strategy (Jimmy Gitonga).

Outreach events

Egerton University
Catholic University
Kabarak University (Nakuru)
JKUAT (Juja)
Dedan Kimathi (Nyeri)
Maseno University
Nelson Mandela University – Arusha
Strathmore / Intel
University of Nairobi – School of Computing and Informatics

Research-related activities:

Launching of the Data Science and Visualization Lab – 2013
First Summer Data Jam Training – 2013

Research published:

List of infographics created (PDF Links):

iHub-Research-infographic

Mobile Technology in Tanzania: 2011
Mobile Technology in Uganda: 2010/2011
Mobile Technology in Kenya: 2010/2011
Kenya Open Data Pre-Incubator Plan: 2012
3Vs Crowdsourcing Framework for Elections: Using online and mobile technology: 2013
How to Develop Research Findings into Solutions using Design Thinking: 2013
Mobile Statistics in East Africa: 2013
iHub Infographic: 2011
Crowdmap Use
Mobile Tech in East Africa: 2011
An Exploratory Study on Kenyan Consumer Ordering Habits

Tech hubs in Africa research (PDF Links):

ICT Hubs Model: Understanding the Factors that make up Hive Colab in Uganda: August 2012
ICT Hubs Model: Understanding the Factor that make up ActivSpaces Model in Cameroon: August 2012
The Impact of ActivSpaces model (in Cameroon) on its Entrepreneurs: January 2013
Draft Report on Comparative Study on Innovation Hubs Across Africa: May 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding the Key Factors of the iHub Model, Nairobi Kenya: April 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding Factors that make up the KLab Model in Rwanda: April 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding Factors that make up the MEST ICT Hub – ACCRA, Ghana: April 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding Factors That Make Up Bongo Hive, Lusaka Zambia: April 2013
ICT Hubs model: Understanding Factors that make up Kinu Hub Model in Dar es salaam, Tanzania: April 2013

Key partnerships:

  • Intel
  • Wananchi Group – ZUKU
  • SEACOM
  • Samsung
  • Microsoft
  • Nokia
  • Google
  • Qualcomm
  • MIH
  • InMobi

VIP speakers:

  • Michael Joseph, Safaricom
  • Joseph Mucheru, Google
  • Vint Cerf, Google
  • Stephen Elop, Nokia
  • Marissa Mayer, Yahoo
  • Bob Collymore, Safaricom
  • Larry Wall, Creator of Perl
  • John Waibochi, Virtual City
  • Mike Macharia, Seven Seas
  • Ken Oyola, Nokia
  • Isis Ny’ongo, Inmobi, Investor
  • The tweeting Chief Kariuki
  • Louis Otieno, Microsoft
  • Dadi Perlmutter, Intel
  • Susan Dray, Dray and Associates

Launching Gearbox, A Kenyan Makerspace

Gearbox: Kenya's Makerspace for tinkerers and makers of things

Gearbox: Kenya’s Makerspace for tinkerers and makers of things

We’ve been talking (and talking, and talking) about a rapid prototyping space here in Nairobi for ages. Without the resources to do it, the community got things started on their own with the iHub Robotics Group, who does all kinds of cool meetings; from training newbies like me and my daughters on Arduino and Raspberry Pi, to events where they showcase locally made solar tracking systems and help to run kids hacker camps.

This week we’re announcing Gearbox – our makerspace in Nairobi.

What is a Makerspace?

A makerspace (or hackerspace) is where a community of people who like to make physical products, who enjoy tinkering, and who design everything from electronics gadgets to plastic toys meet and work. To us, it’s a place where the worlds of high-tech software geeks meet jua kali artisans. This is why our space covers to flavors; what we call “Gearbox: Light” (electronics and plastics) and “Gearbox: Heavy” (wood and metal). Keep in mind, this isn’t a manufacturing facility for many items, instead it’s a place where you rapidly prototype out your idea to see if it will work – once you figure it out, then you have to find another facility for real production.

This is a place that is very community oriented, where there are advanced users and experienced fabricators around who are part of the community as well. It’s not enough just to be a member, but you also must give back by helping the newbies and running a few trainings to get people up to speed on the equipment.

Gearbox: Heavy
This is where we have heavy duty equipment, the metal working and wood working equipment and tools that allow you to build and prototype large things. Our friends at Re:Char built a “shop in a box” – basically a container with a bunch of amazing equipment. They’ve donated that to the iHub, and we’re finding a home for it now, so that everyone in our community can start building big things.

re:char factory is 20' container

Examples of the equipment:

  • CNC table w/ backup supplies
  • Diesel Generator
  • Welding equipment
  • Band saw, full + handheld
  • Compressor, full + portable
  • Power supply scrubber
  • Oxyacetylene torches
  • Saws, table + chop
  • Soldering iron
  • Drill press, hand drill, corded + cordless
  • Grinders
  • Forge

Gearbox: Light
When we were building out the BRCK, we found that we needed a polished space where we had access to some of the tools and equipment needed for higher-level electronics, while at the same time a place where we could mill out, or 3d print, early versions of the case. We soon found out that there were others creating robots, drones, TV devices and point of sale systems that also needed a place to do rapid testing of their ideas, but who didn’t have the tools themselves.

Solar Kits at Maker Faire Africa in Kenya

Our plan is to have this part of the electronics and plastics part of Gearbox on the 2nd floor of the iHub building. Where you’ll be able to come in and use a 3D printer, laser cutter, smaller CNC machines and soldering equipment. Again, the idea that there are experts around who you can talk to about the right materials, or a more efficient process for building your gadget, is here.

What we need

  • Makers – you want to build something, here’s your chance. Jump on the website and register for a membership, come in and build stuff.
  • Experts – if you’re beyond novice, have built products, please get in touch. We need you to help train and build up the next generation of makers.
  • Interns – a number of you have already been in touch, but we’re looking for 2-4 paid interns who will help manage the space and build the community.

On capital
It costs some money to get started with Gearbox, and a lot of groups are stepping up to help, and we could use some more. The partners for Gearbox are Sanergy, Ushahidi, BRCK, Knowable and Mobius Motors, and we’re looking for more. Academic partners are MIT thus far, and we’d like to get a few more signed up here too. If your company needs access to this kind of equipment from time-to-time, get in touch.

Right now we could use about $50,000 for some equipment purchases, as it’s expensive to buy and ship some items to Kenya. If you can help on that, please get in touch.

Long-term we have other plans for keeping Gearbox sustainable in 3 ways:

  1. Membership: There will be monthly membership fees, the rates are still being determined, but it will be affordable.
  2. Gearshop: There will be a store, where you can buy the small components and resources you need, as well as a place where we sell on consignment, things made by the community.
  3. Partners: Corporate partners who want to be a part of this community can do take part showcasing their products and doing events.

I’ve said for a long time that I think we in Africa have an advantage in making things. It’s a culture that’s never been lost, and we’re used to improvising, adapting and overcoming challenges that come our way. This is our first foray into that meeting of the worlds between high-tech and low-tech making, and I’ve not been this excited about something for a long time.

Join us!

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